Clint Eastwood directed, produced and starred in a film called “Gran Torino” in 2008. The film was about Walt, a retired Detroit autoworker and widower whose neighborhood was no longer homogenous. Gangs were wreaking havoc in the area. When an Asian teen refused to steal Walt’s treasured Gran Torino automobile under gang initiation pressure, Walt befriended the boy, who was Hmong.
Eastwood filmed the movie in Daniel Yang’s childhood neighborhood.
“‘Gran Torino’ was glamorized compared to how I grew up,” said Yang, who is a second-generation American Hmong. “Jesus, rock and roll and the girls in my youth group saved me [from the gang experience].”
The Hmong are a minority people group from Southeast Asia, and they have no homeland. They reside in Vietnam, Thailand, China and Laos. Following the Vietnam War and the Laotian Civil War, many sought refuge in Thailand. By the late 1970s, many of those refugees resettled in Western countries. Detroit was just one landing spot.
The immigrant experience defined Yang both then and now.
As he struggled to define God’s call upon his life after college and while starting his career, one thing became clear. “I made you for the Word,” Yang felt God saying. “I’m going to use your story of being a second-generation immigrant.”
Faith stabilized his family
Immigration is a jolting experience as families face language, culture and economic barriers. His parents made a profession of faith through a Lutheran church, then started attending a Southern Baptist church. By age seven, Yang had also professed faith in Christ.
“There was a strong awareness of Jesus in my life,” Yang recalled. “It set the trajectory of my life and prevented me from joining gangs.”
By age 21, Yang sensed a calling to “some kind of missional ministry.” But first, there was the American dream.
Mike Seaman, left, a church planter in Toronto who spent 15 years ministering and studying in North Carolina, baptizes a new believer. Seaman and Daniel Yang started Trinity Life Church in Toronto about two years ago.
Yang attended the University of Michigan on a full scholarship, majoring in computer science, and spent more than eight years as a software developer. But deep inside, he wanted to study the Bible and answer the question, “Do I believe this stuff?”
He enrolled in extension courses through The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and realized that God was redirecting him to vocational ministry.
“I didn’t want to be a pastor,” Yang said. “I thought I would be a missionary.”
He learned about church planting and saw it as a great merger of being a missionary and staying in North America where he felt led to help churches navigate cultural issues. Detroit seemed the natural place to do that. But even with a team and meeting place secured there, Daniel and his wife, Linda, realized that Detroit was not their destiny.
Texas pit stop
After participating in an assessment process and deciding not to plant in Detroit, Yang received an invitation to Texas where he joined the staff of NorthWood Church for the Communities in Keller, a predominantly Anglo congregation. He developed a college and young adult ministry while serving as an associate worship pastor.
“God was orchestrating something completely different from what I would have ever planned for myself,” Yang said. He finished his seminary degree at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary while receiving mentoring at NorthWood. Senior Pastor Bob Roberts introduced Yang to the North American Mission Board’s Farm System, aimed at assisting churches in discovering, developing and deploying the next generation of missionaries. Yang began looking for a city to plant a church. That’s when Toronto came into view. After their second vision trip there, Yang recalled, “My wife looked at me and asked, ‘Why aren’t we doing this already?’”
Though just four hours from Detroit, the cities are vastly different. Detroit is 87 percent black. Toronto is vastly intercultural and rapidly on the rise as the financial capital of Canada, while Detroit has been in steady decline. Still, he found one similarity.
“I grew up in one of the worst neighborhoods in Detroit, and Regent Park historically was the worst in Toronto,” Yang said.
North Carolina ties
Fellow church planter Mike Seaman and his wife, Missy, joined the Yangs in planting Trinity Church.
Seaman spent about 15 years in North Carolina, studying at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington for his undergraduate degree and then Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS) in Wake Forest for his master of divinity and doctoral degrees. While at SEBTS he served as student ministry at Red Bud Baptist Church in Castalia, N.C., which is one of Trinity Life’s supporters.
Gary Shugart, who became Red Bud’s pastor after Seaman had already left, said the church builds financial support of Trinity Life into its annual budget. Shugart, who emphasized the need for prayer support for the church, has been on a vision tour to Toronto to see the city and how the church works and is looking at partnering with Tar River Baptist Association, along with churches in the association, to plan future mission trips.
Other N.C. churches Seaman said are involved in the church plant include Providence Baptist Church in Raleigh; Hickory Grove Baptist Church in Charlotte; Hales Chapel Baptist Church in Zebulon; and Northside Baptist Church in Wilmington.
Open Door Baptist Church in Raleigh has also been involved mainly through the North American Church Planting Foundation (NACPF), which the church hosts in its facilities. Open Door’s pastor, Dwayne Milioni, serves as NACPF’s board chairman, and Zach Nelson, director, operates the day-to-day ministry. NACPF has been involved with Trinity Life for almost two years. The church’s growth has been “unexpected outside of recognizing God’s grace,” Nelson said. He stresses the importance of coaching or mentoring and developing the essentials of a healthy church.
“Communicating the Word of God that can in many ways be timeless and at the same time cross geographic boundaries” can be difficult said Nelson. But that happens when leaders learn to listen and encourage the planters to find the context that works for them without changing the gospel.
NACPF’s goal is to link Southern Baptist churches with like-minded churches to help them encourage one another in ministry. In cases like Trinity Life, where there are young pastors who have never planted a church, it’s helpful for them to talk to experienced church planters. “What we are trying to provide is a healthy picture of what association looks like,” said Nelson, who has been NACPF’s director since 2011.
The foundation began in 2009 and consists of more than 40 cooperating churches working together to plant other churches.
Nelson said the hope is that Trinity Life becomes a hub where NACPF and NAMB’s Farm System can send future church planters to learn the ministry while working within a church. They then will take what they learn to other areas and plant more churches.
NACPF’s connection with SEBTS helps church planters as well. They provide a bridge to theological education for the planters on the field.
SEBTS is also involved in Trinity Life. They sent a mission team there when the church was starting and are readying another group this spring.
“I love working with these people on the ground,” said Stephen Eccher, SEBTS assistant professor of church history and reformation studies, who is leading the Toronto mission trip. “They are really heroes of mine … working in the tough and difficult sections of the globe.”
The group will consist of about 15 people, mainly students. One of those is an SEBTS trustee, said Eccher.
“Trinity Life is getting ready to do one of their biggest outreaches on Easter week.”
Because SEBTS stresses the importance of the Great Commission for professors and students, Eccher said the Toronto trip will be the fifth trip in about 18 months. “These are always a blast for me,” he said, because it allows the students to see him outside an academic context putting faith to action.
The Yangs and Seamans started a home Bible study as they began building relationships in a city where they knew no one. “It’s always tempting to do what is manageable and predictable,” Yang said. “We could have stayed a house church for a long time.”
Through a relationship with the Toronto Kiwanis Boys and Girls Club, a meeting space opened up. In September 2013, Trinity Life Church launched with the motto, “Discovering identity and destiny in Christ, influencing the city and the world.”
Regent Park is fast changing as young adults, many of whom are college educated, are choosing to live there. “Toronto is much like New York City,” Yang said. “It’s a thinking city. You engage people’s hearts through their minds.”
“It’s helpful when immigrants see that God sent me to North America and I’m on mission here,” Yang said.
As one of North America’s most culturally diverse cities, Toronto is a natural platform for influence. “We’d like to see multiple churches planted in different neighborhoods,” Yang said.
Soon, a church planting intern will join them from NAMB’s Farm System.
Yang has come to appreciate how Canadian and Southern Baptists do missions through the Cooperative Program and Annie Armstrong Easter Offering®.
“We are NAMB missionaries,” Yang said, who recognizes the advantage that support from the entity and Canadian Baptists affords him. “[It] allows us to have a level of stability in terms of me raising my family here in Canada.”
The goal for the 2015 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering is $60 million. To learn more about the Week of Prayer, the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering and how your church can be mobilized to push back lostness in North America, visit anniearmstrong.com.
Prayer points from Mike Seaman
Protection from the Enemy for our families Daniel and I are both married, he has 4 boys, I have 2 girls.
We need help discerning the next steps in multiplication.
Space is an issue in downtown Toronto. “It’s expensive and the spaces are small. We are growing (praise!), but we can’t find a new space that can accommodate our growth and that we can afford.”
Upcoming vision tours
Through the Great Commission Partnerships of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, N.C. Baptists have partnerships with three strategic focus cities: Toronto, Boston and New York. Vision tours are planned in April, May and September to each city.
April 29-May 1
First-time participants can receive $100 scholarship toward the cost of their trip. Visit ncbaptist.org/gcp for more information or contact Steve Hardy at (800) 395-5102, ext. 5654, or [email protected].
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Jim Burton writes for the North American Mission Board. Dianna L. Cagle, Biblical Recorder production editor, contributed to this story.)